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Rebooting the Invitation to Technology

As CEO of Reboot Representation, Dwana Franklin-Davis draws on a lifetime of experience in the tech world to get more Black, Latina, and Native American women into the industry

Dwana Franklin-Davis grew up in a tech-savvy household outside Chicago. “We were the popular house on the block because we had the little arcade simulator where you could change the games by switching out the motherboard,” she recalls. “We were the cool house until Nintendo came out.”
That early exposure helped guide her to a career in technology. After majoring in information systems management at Purdue University and earning an information management masters from Washington University in St. Louis, Franklin-Davis went to work for Mastercard. She spent nearly 14 years at the company, holding roles from senior web administrator to vice president in charge of technology operations and payment programs. She left the corporate world in 2019 to become CEO of Reboot Representation, a nonprofit that works with some of the world’s largest tech firms to expand the number of Black, Latina, and Native American women working in technology.
“The tech space should reflect society,” Franklin-Davis said. “Their demographics should reflect what society looks like, and we’re a very long way from that right now.” In an interview with The Elective, she explained how Reboot is using detailed data to tackle the problem, changing the invitation to computer science, and why she’s always honest with students about what it takes to work in tech—and change the world.

Photo of Dwana Franklin-Davis

Dwana Franklin-Davis/LinkedIn

How did you decide to jump from the corporate world to Reboot Representation?

I’ve spent my entire career trying to figure out how to help people: How to build better teams, make better teams, support more women and minorities in tech. But when you work for one company, your sphere of influence is small. At Reboot, I have a whole coalition of some pretty powerful companies getting behind this issue.

We all know that the tech industry has a representation problem, but they weren’t really spending any money on it. When you look at the percentage of Black, Latina, and Native American women graduating with computing degrees, it’s about 4%. That number wasn’t projected to double to 8% until 2052, even though those women make up 16% of the U.S. population. Diversity is not something we need to compete on; it’s something we need to collaborate on. It’s all about the collective action of these amazing companies to make systemic change and move the needle forward. This is the one space where you have tech giants not competing but working together.

At Reboot, we get to be a convener, not just for the companies but for grant partners—the organizations doing on-the-ground work to diversify education and create more pathways into the tech sector. We have this amazing ability to bring everyone to the table to share and grow. None of these organizations should start from zero. We should learn from each other collectively to improve the whole space. 

What are some of the ways Reboot is tackling that problem?

Start with data! Data is that magic key, so let’s collect data at every stage. In recruiting, do you have diverse candidate slates? Let’s talk about what your company data looks like when it comes to retention and departure of employees. All of that pipeline work will be for naught if companies are not retaining people. Then let’s look at your corporate social responsibility spending and philanthropic investments. Are you putting real money behind the problem you’re trying to solve?   At every step, we need to disaggregate those numbers by race and gender. And depending on what we’re trying to solve for, you can look at other intersectional categories, as well. It's not enough just to say, “We want more women in tech,” because then you’re going to miss out on Black, Latina, and Native women. Let’s be specific with our goals and what we’re trying to implement. When you have that data, you can set real goals and design real programs to meet them.

Young black woman with short hair working on a computer

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We talk a lot at College Board about changing the invitation to computer science and helping students understand that it’s not a narrow specialty but a field that touches almost everything in the modern world. How do you frame that message at Reboot?

I tell students all the time to take your passions, marry them with tech, and you’re going to change the future. Technology transcends industries. Every single industry has a tech component, and that was accelerated by the pandemic. When you can tie technology to an issue or a project that students already care about, I think that really changes things.

You also have to just start by asking all the girls to take the class: “It’s going to be fun, you’re going to love it!” Give them that encouragement, boost their confidence, and it builds. Get more girls in the class, and now they can work on tech projects with their friends. Add some visible examples of professional women that look like them so they can understand what they can do with this in the future. “What does my life look like if I continue on this path?” Get them thinking, “Well she did it, and I think I can do it, because her background is pretty similar to mine.”

When you look at the data, where do you see some of the biggest challenges in terms of keeping young women on track for tech-industry careers?

We see a big struggle in the handoff between K–12 and higher education. Data shows that companies are making pretty heavy investments in K–12, so there are all these great programs for fifth graders or sixth graders. But all of that exposure has not led to more diversity in tech. So what happened that led to that child not entering the tech industry?

There should be a pathway at all of those schools for girls to go into computing. Part of our society’s challenge right now is that we have all of these amazing programs, but we’re not connecting the dots between them so that students know what to do next. Who’s guiding all the students who don’t have parents in the tech world, who don’t have that access and exposure? I want to see counselors and teachers get better at suggesting tech careers and technology majors. “I’m glad you enjoyed AP Computer Science Principles—now here’s what you should take next!”

Higher education is a very under-examined part of the pipeline. How are universities recruiting diverse students to begin with and then working to retain them in computing majors? Let’s focus on this very specific portion of the pipeline and get that under control because that’s where we see a lot of the losses in terms of women entering tech fields.

Young woman working on a robotics project with three other women working together in the background

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When students ask you about your own challenges in the tech world, what do you tell them?

I am 100% honest about my experiences. I gave up the filter a long time ago. It’s too much work to not be your full self; it’s too much work to have to sugarcoat things. I’ve participated in student panels where they asked me very real questions about microaggressions in the workplace, about having natural hair in the workplace, about how you deal with harassment from a boss or a coworker. They know I’m going to be honest with them, and I think that’s really important as we try to bring more diversity into the field.

For a long time I didn’t feel like I belonged, and I had to learn from an early age that that’s OK. I had to learn early about being different and how that felt, how to be one of the “onlys.” By the time I got to college, I had pretty tough skin. I wasn’t afraid of tech, but I questioned whether I wanted to do it. Was this a place where I want to spend the rest of my life if I don’t have a sense of community or belonging? For a long time, I really wasn’t sure.

But I don’t just tell students the daunting part. I navigated through my education at Purdue and a masters degree at WashU and then spent almost 14 years at Mastercard. You don't do that without some major accomplishments. There was some adversity, sure. Tech is not all roses, but it has been an amazing career for me—and it can be an amazing career for more young women.

I often tell students to lean into your differences. Know that your differences are your superpower, not your kryptonite. I want them to know they have a place in tech, that the space is going to welcome and encourage and foster their creativity and innovation. And this is an amazing opportunity for wealth building, as well.

We have to be honest that it’s not diverse and inclusive right now—not as much as it should be. But there are a lot of people and organizations working hard to change that. And there are a lot of companies that will welcome your talent, your experiences, your full self.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.